How John Oliver Became Our Money Champion of the Year
Who did the most to improve the financial lives of Americans this year? After two months of poring over some 75 nominations from readers, experts, and staffers, the answer was clear. Meet Money’s pick for 2016’s most influential and informative (and, funny!) financial crusader—and the winner of our online readers' choice poll as well.
Warning: The following joke is not safe for work and may offend longtime readers (and some financial advisors). The context: a June 2016 episode of HBO’s Sunday-night mock news magazine, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.
The Setup: “It is currently legal for financial advisers to put their own interests ahead of yours, unless—and this is interesting—they are what is called a fiduciary.”
The Punch Line: “Which is weird—it’s kind of like finding out that only some waiters are forbidden from ejaculating in your soup.”
Whether or not you laughed at that—trust us, it’s funnier on YouTube—one thing is clear: Before Oliver, nobody ever tried (let alone won an Emmy for) making watercooler-worthy entertainment out of complicated subjects critical to Americans’ financial health. The wage gap, predatory lending, and paid family leave each got the Last Week Tonight treatment during the show’s first two seasons. But Oliver has doubled down on personal finance in 2016, devoting entire shows to credit reports (in April), debt collection and retirement planning (in June), and auto lending (August).
“If it was a one-off, it’d be a big deal,” says Robert Weissman, president of the nonpartisan consumer rights group Public Citizen, about Oliver’s coverage of obscure financial issues. “But he’s doing it in one area after another. The heightened public awareness creates an environment in which it’s possible to win reform.”
That’s a big claim to make about a comedian. But truth be told—and his own protests notwithstanding— Oliver is doing a lot more than telling jokes. The show’s format allows for 20-minute deep dives, complete with detailed explanations, investigative reporting, exhortations for viewers to take action, and even practical advice of the kind Money routinely offers (albeit without expletives).
The jokes, meanwhile—which Oliver has said are dropped into scripts last, after weeks or months of research and fact-checking—are added largely to leaven the wonky stuff and sustain viewer attention. “They’re kind of the window dressing,” he told Vulture.com in February. “But you need to make sure that they’re hanging on something solid, because if that story falls apart, all the jokes fall apart.”
The resulting show has as much in common with the kind of populist TV journalism made famous by 60 Minutes as it does with the topical comedy style that Jon Stewart—Oliver’s former boss and mentor—invented on Comedy Central.
Take that June segment on retirement planning, for instance. The joke about fiduciaries (and soup) was followed by a capsule seminar, complete with graphs, on how compound interest can turn small fees into big losses over time. (“Think of fees like termites: They’re tiny; they’re hardly visible; and they can eat away your f--king future.”) Then came a quick lesson on active vs. passive investing. Then a few minutes on Oliver’s months-long effort to secure a low-fee 401(k) plan for his show’s own staff. (He had to fire the company’s provider to do it.) Finally, more than 18 minutes in, viewers saw a pre-produced parody of a financial firm ad, ending with a five-point plan for successful retirement savings. “Try to keep your fees, like your milk, below 1%,” comedian Billy Eichner deadpans to the camera as the piece ends. “Even one-tenth of 1% can really f--k you.”
Similarly, Oliver painstakingly picks apart the abuses of many debt collection businesses (partly by starting his own firm and buying $15 million worth of medical debt for pennies on the dollar); the high rate of credit reporting errors; and the systematic markups of the used-car industry.
Is there evidence that this approach actually changes minds, individual behavior, or public policy? The raw numbers suggest it resonates in a way that personal finance never has before. The retirement segment was seen by some 5 million viewers when it aired on HBO in June. More significantly, it went viral, garnering another 6 million views on YouTube and Facebook since then. That kind of multichannel success no doubt helped Oliver’s show capture its first Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series in September.
But Oliver’s influence goes beyond ratings and cultural cachet. The so-called John Oliver effect—the idea that the comedian’s topical polemics translate into real change—has been a persistent Internet meme ever since the show’s first season. Oliver himself (who declined to comment for this article) pointedly deflates the notion, but fans and policy wonks alike see his fingerprints on a range of progressive policy developments in a variety of areas, from for-profit colleges to civil forfeiture.
In most cases the evidence is circumstantial—New York City reformed its bail policy less than a month after Oliver covered the topic, for example. But in 2014, Oliver’s fans notoriously crashed the website of the Federal Communications Commission after he implored them to voice concerns about pending threats to so-called net neutrality. A few months later the FCC issued rules holding firm on net neutrality.
But Oliver’s impact is arguably even subtler—and more powerful. “He’s really building a case for more control over predatory financial institutions,” says Public Citizen’s Weissman. Powerhouse Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren agrees. “John Oliver shines a light on some really big problems,” she told Money. “He makes us laugh and teaches us something, but he also calls on the audience to take action to influence public policy. He helps make change.”